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The Art of Riding: Classical Dressage to High School – Odin at Saumur

The Art of Riding: Classical Dressage to High School – Odin at Saumur

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The Art of Riding: Classical Dressage to High School – Odin at Saumur

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400 Seiten
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22. Feb. 2017


In this new edition, French riding master Philippe Karl writes about training horses from a very personal perspective. The Art of Riding documents the training and development of the Lusitano stallion 'Odin’ according to traditional French classical principles, from young horse all the way up to High School.
22. Feb. 2017

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The Art of Riding - Philippe Karl



In 1934, the Master Armand Charpentier said in one of his talks before the Paris riding club, L’Étrier, that,

‘…Xenophon’s teachings are so accurate and correct that even after all these centuries (more than twenty three) there is nothing more to add… The parade horse described by the conqueror of Scillonte could have been ridden by Cazeau de Nestier and the suppling of the neck by the relaxation of the mouth could have been written by Baucher.’

(André Monteilhet, Les maîtres de l’œuvre équestre)

Accordingly, it would appear that there can be nothing more to invent in equitation, so it may seem presumptuous and futile to continue to write about this distinguished art. Must many years’ comprehensive experience therefore be simply dismissed?

Wisdom rightly states that ‘experience is a lantern carried on one’s back that illuminates only the path already trodden’. At least the pathfinder gains the satisfaction of illuminating the road for those who follow him, and this is exactly the mission of every teacher who takes his calling seriously in all its greatness and transience.

Perhaps out of cautious reserve, there are many gifted écuyers* who have left nothing behind, and one could say they ‘hid their light under a bushel’. A pity!

As for the rest, their modesty sometimes serves only as a virtuous mask for intellectual sluggishness, or as a comfortable alibi for dubious competence.

No one can expect absolute certainty and infallibility from a teacher. He is entitled, nevertheless, to lend expression to his convictions if he says what he does and does what he says. He who is congruent in word and deed demonstrates a sincerity that should earn him the right to a few mistakes, and at least some goodwill, if not respect. The competence of an écuyer lies in a constant search for perfection in four areas.

*Écuyer is often translated as instructor or riding master; however, this does not fully reflect the particular meaning and gravitas of the term in France. An official rank at Saumur, écuyer implies someone who trains horses and good riders, and it is awarded only to those with long-standing practical experience in all aspects of riding, a comprehensive appreciation and understanding of riding culture and an extensive specialist knowledge of the horse.


‘Theory is the knowledge, practice the ability. Knowledge should always take precedence over action.’

(Alois Podhajsky, The complete training of the horse and rider)

Horsemanship is part of a nation’s cultural heritage, and France is one of the most richly endowed. However, many riders take too literally what General L’Hotte overstated:

‘One does not learn the art from books because they inform only those who already know.’

This results in an often crazy empiricism dressed up now and then with the feathers of snobbery. This trend has its own language – coded, numerical, based on purchase prices, profits, average values, indices, breeding lines, orders, computer lists – a technical jargon that relates more to ‘business’ than culture, and cannot pretend to replace it.

Neglecting the experience of our predecessors means one fails to put one’s own practice in perspective, and impoverishes it by robbing it of technical and historical references. In addition one must admit that, without becoming overly scientific, any useful conception of equitation incorporates a knowledge of anatomy, physiology, the science of locomotion, animal psychology, etc. Finally, our knowledge develops thanks to our nicest virtue, curiosity itself. Every rider’s observations are instructive if they give rise to an objective, unprejudiced analysis.

Of course, education is not the same as competence, and no écuyer can be the pure product of his library. That would require a belief in some kind of ‘spontaneous generation’. Reading, observation, reflection, study of the theory and practice mutually enhance one another.

‘Above all one must ride a lot, without letting the books gather dust on the shelves.’ (Nuno Oliveira)


‘In riding, science and art are often wrongly opposed to one another. There, practical know-how, the domain of the artisan and art, the aesthetic object, domain of the artist, come together. But only in High School and sometimes in sport can riding evoke the sentiments of beauty, which is the domain of art.’ (Jean Licart, Équitation raisonnée)

At this level, riding becomes a form of expression at least as demanding as dance or music. It is not always the most gifted riders who go furthest, since precisely because they find it so easy, they may become dilettante. One could say that is their ‘Achilles’ heel’, as described in the song of Georges Brassens:

‘He had the gift, that’s true,

I admit, he was a genius,

but without technique, a gift is

nothing more than a bad habit… ’

Only daily, stubborn, often thankless, almost ascetic practice can produce real mastery. Although the professional must remain an amateur in the etymological sense of the word, one who does it out of love, it is not possible to produce excellent performance by being amateurish in any discipline.

Hence, certain artists’ circles should be regarded with caution. They mostly consist of followers of the ‘vaguely brilliant’, and castigate with more pretension than competence the ‘laborious sticklers for principles’. The latter are at least honest workers. Art can only exist with enough virtuosity to free oneself from material compulsions. This requires flawless technique.

Everyone knows that the dance is found between the movements, that music springs from between the notes and that poetry originates between the lines … but at the price of untiring work that enables one to avoid missteps, dissonances and errors in spelling, grammar or syntax.

To the extent that classical horsemanship strives, like the art of dancing, for the ‘difficult ease’ from which the beauty of the movement arises, the rider may profit from meditating on the verses of Claude Nougaro:

‘The dance is this cage,

in which one learns to fly’

Passing it on

Without an appreciation of equestrian culture and without competence in the education of horses, teaching is not possible. Riding has the specific feature that the teacher must also be the manufacturer of his educational tools. Besides, we are dealing with a sentient being, where every intervention constitutes an act of training, for better or for worse.

‘Riding and training cannot be separated. By the simple act of sitting on a horse, one is unconsciously training or de-training.’ (Gustave Le Bon, L’Equitation actuelle et ses principes)

The teacher sharpens the horse if he works it, and the pupil dulls it if he uses it for his education. If the lessons are given prudently, the rider acquires a feel for the ‘edge’ of the horse without blunting it. Put simply, the écuyer must frequently take back his work, even re-make it.

It is evident that one should be careful not to confuse lessons with educational theory. By way of provocation, seasoned instructors sometimes say with irony: ‘what you can’t do, teach … if you don’t succeed at teaching, specialise in educational theory’.

Educational theory offers possibilities to improve the transfer of knowledge. Concerned with diverse teaching styles and methods, it is absolutely worthy of interest, but one must beware of underestimating the importance of the message itself. After all: ‘What do I care about the bottle, so long as I get drunk?’

Of course, the all too frequently heard ‘watch me … and do the same’ is especially unsatisfactory. A good instructor has wisdom born of experience, and is moderately extrovert and a benevolent disciplinarian, clearly: the generosity one calls a ‘gift for teaching’. To the teacher, this is like the musician’s ear and the dancer’s feel for rhythm. These talents are innate – one can always work on them and refine them, but never create them.

Making oneself understood

An écuyer in the true sense, someone who applies solid equestrian knowledge and experience to the education of his horses and is keen to pass on what he has learned to others, can only agree with the following definition:

‘Equitation, in reality a scientific art, is the more or less skilful application of different sciences. Reducing as much as possible the component of skill in it is the only possible way to advance it and to give riders (while appealing to their intellect) lessons that do not remain superficial…’ (Gustave Le Bon, L’Equitation actuelle et ses principes)

Thus in any comprehensive conception of horsemanship, any technique which does not lead to a logical result, which cannot be shown to be part of a method which itself conforms to academic principles, should be rejected as a common trick. This speaks to the intellectual rigour of the rider and his honesty as an instructor – to his credibility.

In the light of his experiences, the écuyer’s knowledge and skills must ensure that his theories become ever more comprehensive, yet more convincing and simpler. He will be interested in educational theory only insofar as he must adapt the exercise to the training of his horse, adjusting his language and his explanations to the age and the intellectual abilities of his pupil.

An instructor who is content to teach only ‘what to do’ produces, at best, trained monkeys on machines. One who tries, however, to teach an understanding of what one does, how, when, why and for what purpose, produces riders deserving of the title, even if of only modest abilities.

The art of riding consists above all of learning to understand the horse: how to use him without abusing him. In this sense it brings out the ‘man of honour’, justifying Wachter’s masterly definition:

‘The art of riding can be summarised in two words: fairness and correctness.’ (In French: justice et justesse.)

Through this subtle guidance the pupil becomes truly independent, and the teacher is the opposite of a guru:

‘A good master knows how to make himself superfluous.’ (René Bacharach, Réponses équestres)

It is clear that aspiring to the title of écuyer means embarking on a constant search for a level of perfection which everyone knows is not to be found on earth. It is said: ‘One is not an écuyer, one is always becoming one.’

So now, after more than thirty years of enthusiastic practice and passionate apprenticeship on that long road to Rome by way of Saumur, it is time to take stock.

The horse is the raison d’être of the rider and the écuyer’s calling card. It is only right that Odin and his training should be the subject as well as the guiding thread of this account, sometimes technical, sometimes anecdotal. Several reasons justify this choice:

He was the first horse in my career that I could train all by myself for more than three years from the time when he was started.

His repertoire is extremely broad: work on two tracks, flying changes, tempi-changes, canter pirouettes, piaffe and pirouettes in piaffe, passage including half-pass at passage, pesade, Spanish walk, work on long reins and in-hand.

He came with me to Saumur in 1985 and took part in gala performances of the Cadre Noir in France and abroad from 1986. For 12 years he was one of the main attractions of these events as a soloist under saddle and on long reins.

As an occasional schoolmaster he was a ‘stepping stone’ for a whole string of instructors and advanced amateurs.

His life story is at the same time atypical and eclectic. Atypical, because he was the first Lusitano stallion accepted by the National School of Equitation – which did not happen by itself. Eclectic, because he appeared in many unusual and sometimes astonishing surroundings: arenas, circus, theatrical stage, TV studio – even in dressage competitions!

In the end, I dare to hope that I may be forgiven for the title of this preface which, while indeed something of a play on words, at least conveys the exact intention of this work:

It is the thesis of a keen student; a horse is the advocate of this cause.

Although this is the fruit of long-standing research, nevertheless, it remains a hypothesis that can only be refined yet further in the future.

‘Every horseman with long-standing experience can make certain comments which were not signposted by his predecessors or which eluded them, because the knowledge and use of the horse represents an inexhaustible field of investigation and observation.’ (Alexis L’Hotte, Questions équestres)

One should not take these words of encouragement from General L’Hotte too lightly because, as several anecdotes attest, he was not known for being overly generous with them. So, it is with the gratitude and respect that his work and memory deserve that I would like to dedicate to him these few ‘memoirs of a civilian écuyer’.

Why an Iberian horse?

Sometimes one is fortunate not to have things too easy. Coming from a riding family, I might no doubt have inherited an exclusive taste for a certain discipline, and for this type or that breed of horse. That, however, was not the case. On the contrary, I was forbidden from riding until I had reached an age when I could work and pay for it myself. On the day that I decided to make it my profession and give up my medical studies, it was time to pack my bags. It was a matter of a well-reasoned, even if not so reasonable choice, of a personal aspiration, deeply and very dearly held. A long-standing frustration and my awareness of the handicap of such a late beginning meant that my zeal and my curiosity knew no bounds. Very quickly I found myself more attracted to the writings of La Guérinière and Parrocel’s engravings, than competition results and pictures of dressage horses. An inexplicable question of taste! Thus I found out in the course of my reading that the Iberian was ‘the horse of kings and the king of horses’, the most prized in all the academies of Europe from the Italian Renaissance up to the end of the eighteenth century.

Confronted with this voraciousness, and with tastes close to his own, my first riding instructor, M. Portelette, had the excellent idea to entrust me with Nuno Oliveira’s book: ‘Réflexions sur l’Art Équestre’, and then the happy inspiration to take me to his friend, M. Henriquet. I was immediately seduced. I discovered horses and a style of riding which imposed themselves upon me with the strength of an aesthetic ideal, summarised in one word: roundness – which is also, by the way, the hallmark of good jumping!

From then on, I could not help but be interested equally in jumping and the art of riding. That allowed me to experience for myself how the greatest contrasts in my subject could be resolved: the Andalusian fans considered me a daredevil because I jumped with pleasure, while the competition dressage riders thought me a crazy exotic because I did not scorn Iberian horses or even Lipizzaners … not yet an écuyer, but already a collector!

Certainly, a few engravings from La Guérinière, or showing Monsieur de Nestier riding Le Florido, nestling between a Louis XV armchair and a Louis XVI chest of drawers place many a rider ‘in the right company’, but his taste for antiques will not always stretch to training a descendant of these horses.

To some these are not ‘proper’ horses. So logically they would have to eat their words if a rider succeeded in achieving genuine and comprehensive results with one. In their defence, it has to be said that all too often one sees mediocre presentations or caricatures of this breed, with would-be riders who abuse their generosity, take themselves for educated masters and, of course, cannot condemn the rest of the equestrian world harshly enough.

To others, these horses are so easy that there is no merit in training them. Thus it should be dishonourable to work with such aptitude, but commendable to acquire a ‘talented’ German horse with gold! Should one shun a talent for collection if one has ambitions toward High School? I cannot think of anyone who would keep a four-year-old for jumping if he runs under the poles, or try to win at Auteuil with a Percheron!

If one considers modern dressage in the context of the history of equitation, one discovers very quickly that what is held up today as representing the ‘everlasting values’ is perhaps just current fashion. Some examples:

The extended trot, so highly valued at present, was regarded by the old masters as a vulgar gait, appropriate only for coach-horses. To go fast, nature gave us the canter, a point of view that speaks for itself.

Also, out of simple common sense, the flying lead change was regarded not as an air, but only as a banal movement serving an utilitarian purpose. And when in the middle of the nineteenth century François Baucher launched his changes of lead at every stride (tempi-changes), while it was the height of popularity in the circus, the supporters of academic equitation regarded this tour de force as a tasteless quirk.

On the other hand, airs like the pesade have fallen into oblivion. Is there, however, a better proof of the mastery of collection?

Let us live in our time, because we must, but consciously and without disavowing our equestrian inheritance either from arrogance or from ignorance.

Why a stallion?

One is first tempted to answer: because they are born that way if nature did not make them mares.

Then again, I was also from the beginning in an environment where it was, as far as possible, normal to leave stallions entire irrespective of their breed. Of course, there are also exceptions. A few horses turn out to be dangerous and must be castrated, but they are a small minority. The majority, however, do not belong in everybody’s hands, because of the need for a deeper obedience, crafted by an experienced rider.

So it was understood that the cavalry in general could not keep entire horses that would be ridden in ranks with arms and packs by riders of modest ability. After that, out of force of habit and an inclination towards ease and comfort, this practice became systematic.

Fortunately, for several years the best dressage and jumping riders have been turning up at competitions with stallions.

It is without doubt because of waiting too long in selecting stallions for the character traits associated with aptitude under saddle that French breeding, so genetically rich and so successful in jumping has, nevertheless, not succeeded in producing good dressage horses and must submit today to the dominance of German horses in this discipline.

Without getting too philosophical about it, it is a little hypocritical to proclaim ‘the nobility of man’s most virtuous conquest’ and ‘the manly virtues of equitation’, when the systematic removal of the body parts which contribute to the horse’s fire and pride is a discourteous precondition.

In pragmatic terms, it goes without saying one would rather ride a quality gelding than an emotionally disturbed stallion, and a good Selle Français than a mediocre Iberian.

In summary, let’s say that no breed is perfect (that we know) and that all are worthy of study and respect, whether equine or human!

Discovery and purchase

Odin was acquired by M. and Mme. Huré in September 1983. Mme. Huré had at that time been a keen riding pupil of mine for six years, and owned a horse which was not registered but was hot enough to be christened ‘Fogo’ (‘fire’ in Portuguese). I had broken him in for them; Fogo was an excellent teaching horse, but he was getting on, and it was

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